Recording the Dream

Brian Ward, author of a new book on the links between Rhythm and Blues music and the Civil Rights movement, tells of Martin Luther King’s little-known experiences as a recording artist.

While studies of Martin Luther King have burgeoned during the thirty years since the Civil Rights leader’s death, certain aspects of his career remain virtually unexplored by Movement historians. One such gap in the literature concerns King’s relationship with the recording industry, and in particular with two resourceful and intensely ambitious black record label owners, Dootsie Williams and Berry Gordy.

Almost from the beginning of his public career, several Rhythm and Blues record labels had seen in King an opportunity to make money and to project a racially progressive image to their customers. In 1960, for example, Atlantic, which was the most successful of all the Rhythm and Blues labels in the 1950s – and which continued to flourish in the 1960s with singers like Aretha Franklin – sought permission to record about forty minutes of King speaking. Although King was apparently ‘quite interested’ in the suggestion, nothing ever came of it, and it fell to Dootsie Williams, owner of the Los Angeles-based Dooto Records – home of the Penguins and their million-selling hit ‘Earth Angel’ – to release King’s first solo album.

Unfortunately, however, this pioneering 1962 release was actually an unauthorised bootleg, recorded at the Zion Hill Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Wyatt Tee Walker, executive secretary of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) recalled the circumstances:

As is our custom, I asked a gentleman who was preparing to set up a recorder, for what purpose the tape would be used. He replied it was ‘for the church’. Three months later... the record came out. Neither Dr King nor anyone connected with SCLC knew anything about the record until it was being distributed.

After five months of trying to persuade Dootsie Williams to withdraw the disk, the SCLC secured a court injunction to prevent further sales.

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